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'A church is hands on': Why these Texas churches aren't closing their doors

As religious groups across Texas move their services online in response to COVID-19, some still say in-person gatherings are an integral part of their faith.
Credit: Ivan Pierre Aguirre for The Texas Tribune
A parishioner prays in a church in Texas.

This story originally appeared in The Texas Tribune.

On San Antonio’s East Side, if Pastor Shetigho Nakpodia wants to tend to her flock, she has no choice but to go to them.

Much of what she does involves delivering food and serving meals to people in her community, many of them experiencing homelessness. As she puts it, her small church, called Redeemer’s Praise Church, is open 24/7 — coronavirus pandemic or not.

“I never close,” she said.

As religious groups around the state move their services online in response to COVID-19 and local governments mandate stay-at-home orders, there are still some who say in-person gatherings are an integral part of their faith.

Gov. Greg Abbott’s decision Tuesday to call those religious services essential has bolstered many of them.

James Buntrock, associate pastor at Glorious Way Church in north Houston, says it’s part of the church’s religious mandate to hold services, but it is also making adjustments.

“We will do our best to cooperate with social distancing and guidelines,” said Buntrock, who is among the religious organizations who have filed a petition against Harris County’s stay-home order. “If we need to have multiple services to accommodate a larger crowd, we’ll hold people out.” The church plans to seat family units together and then put 6 feet of distance between them and other households.

The church plans to keep livestreaming services, but “we can’t do everything that the church needs to do through video,” Buntrock said. “A church is hands on.” And a church limited to livestream “is one power outage away and one internet outage away from being shut down entirely.”

On Sundays, at Nakpodia’s church in San Antonio, people come and go, grabbing food and sometimes staying for Bible study or her sermon — usually no more than 25 people over the course of the day. Some take coffee or food and simply leave.

Unlike other, larger congregations, she has no way to livestream — and much of her work isn’t about the services but the food she provides, she said. “If coronavirus doesn’t kill them, starving will kill them.”

Rabbi Mara Nathan, with Temple Beth-El in San Antonio, said she understands some faith groups, especially smaller ones, may lack the financial resources or technological access to do services remotely. Or they may not have a formal liturgy but instead have gathering practices, which “adds a whole other level of challenges.”

She urged them to turn to larger congregations for help and to learn from what they’ve done.

“I think it’s important for all the different faith leaders to know that we can rely on each other,” Nathan said. “This is a moment where our moral leadership is essential.”

Decisions to stop holding live services in Texas mosques have not come without pushback, said Shariq Abdul Ghani, director of the Minaret Foundation in Houston.

“Not because they don’t understand what [the coronavirus] is, but because of the connection we have with the mosque,” he said. “As Muslims we are mandated to go to mosque on Friday, to be without a mosque for this long is incredibly unusual.”

But he said mosques also understand the responsibility they have as members of their community. “We, as Houstonians, feel we have a role to play in stopping the spread and in also understanding the need to not congregate and understanding what that does,” he said.

In a letter to faith leaders Wednesday, after the governor’s order, San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg and Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff urged them to continue operating remotely. “Our faith community is so much a part of San Antonio’s basic nature,” the letter read. “Yet, through this collective action, we are giving our community hope that there are brighter days ahead ... .”

To keep too many from being inside the church, Nakpodia said she’ll probably just allow no more than 10 inside at a time and have them sit two chairs apart. If there’s overflow, those people can sit outside and her son can minister to them. Like everyone else, she said, she wants to do what it takes to end the coronavirus.

But she sees no problem with people holding small Bible studies of two to four families in their homes. Faith is important, she said, to fighting the disease. “Without God, we cannot overcome this thing,” Nakpodia said.

Of Abbott’s exempting churches Tuesday, Nakpodia said she’d support whatever course he decided to take, calling him “the pastor of Texas.”

“I believe he’s a man of faith,” she said. “Maybe that’s what the Lord told him to do.”

Vianna Davila is a reporter with The Texas Tribune/ProPublica investigative initiative. Perla Trevizo with the investigative initiative contributed to this story.

The Texas Tribune is a nonpartisan, nonprofit media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them – about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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